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A pause for thought as row over Oxford comma brings Brexit to poignant full stop

Catherine O'Mahony


Punctuating the change: The new 50p celebrates Brexit, but will be remembered for sacrificing the Oxford comma and stirring an argument over punctuation. Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

Punctuating the change: The new 50p celebrates Brexit, but will be remembered for sacrificing the Oxford comma and stirring an argument over punctuation. Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Wire


Punctuating the change: The new 50p celebrates Brexit, but will be remembered for sacrificing the Oxford comma and stirring an argument over punctuation. Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

This week, as Britain edged inexorably toward one of the most defining moments in its history, one topic took pole position in the various debates about Brexit.

It centred on the Oxford comma. At the risk of boring you I feel I must explain what this is (being aware that the kind of pedants who often work in newspapers care, but normal people generally don't).

Anyway it's the comma that is inserted before the word "and" in a list of three items or more. Such as: "Britain is heading into a new era of peace, prosperity, and possibly ignominy," to pick a random example (the second comma is the Oxford one and it is indeed named after Oxford University Press).

It's not always used any more and nobody really agrees whether it should be or not. Those who argue for it say you can end up with odd misunderstandings unless you use it. One example is the sentence: "I love my parents, Miss Piggy and Kermit." Without a second comma, it sounds as though you are the offspring of Muppets. In any case, the trouble is that the Oxford comma is missing from the 50p coin forged specially by the Royal Mint to commemorate Brexit. And this is an issue.

Specifically the three million coins that are due to enter circulation today carry the slogan "Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations". Just the one comma, then. Sajid Javid, chancellor of the exchequer, has said he hopes the commemorative coin will mark "the beginning of this new chapter" as the UK leaves the European Union.

The big reveal of the coin, however, led to immediate controversy as Philip Pullman, the high-profile author of the young adult book series 'His Dark Materials', tweeted that it "should be boycotted by all literate people". 'The Times Literary Supplement' editor Stig Abell chimed in to note that while this was "not perhaps the only objection" to the Brexit coin, "the lack of a comma after 'prosperity' is killing me". There is something poignant about this whole exchange.

First, those of us (and doubtless this includes a considerable number of Britons) who think Brexit is a terrible idea find it a little weird to see them producing a coin to mark the occasion. Second, it's a reminder of the whole tediously protracted nature of the UK's process toward EU exit. The Royal Mint was originally supposed to issue a coin last Halloween - when Brexit was due to happen - but then it had to have an emergency rethink. No wonder everyone's weary of the actually tangible issues.

But most of all, the fact that a comma can trigger any kind of controversy at all is a reminder of an absurdist streak that feels quite peculiarly British and that is one of the many things I personally appreciate about our closest neighbours.

In no other country could the whole EU ban on "bendy bananas" trope have been preserved for so many years (and it wasn't ever based on a fact but was just a hilarious thing to imagine, like the fictional forced renaming of the British sausage as an emulsified high-fat offal tube, as described on 'Yes Minister').

Where else in the world can you imagine the presence - and survival - of a group called the Apostrophe Protection Society? It functioned for 18 years until its founder, a retired editor called John Richards, gave it up at the age of 96 (he sadly declared that while he had done his best, "ignorance and laziness have won").

In 1871, so the story goes, Britain nearly torpedoed a trade agreement with the US over a single split infinitive in the treaty document. The US agreed to amend.

Mind you it's not only Britain that ties itself into these sorts of knots over grammar.

In the US in 2014, the absence of an Oxford comma won an expensive class action court case for a group of workers in Maine who were seeking overtime payments from a dairy company.

The workers raised a question over a state law that declared overtime rules do not apply to the following: "The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods."

Because there was no Oxford comma following "packing for shipment'', they argued it was unclear exactly what was exempted from overtime.

They won their case. The dairy paid them $5m. And then Maine introduced a semi-colon in place of a comma in the disputed spot in its legislation, which triggered yet another modest grammar-based furore. Pedants, it seems, come in all nationalities.

On a more literary theme, back in 2013 our own Central Bank had a red-faced moment when it misquoted Ulysses on a commemorative coin for James Joyce by adding in an extra word. The line Joyce wrote read: "Signatures of all the things I am here to read …" The Joyce coin read: "Signatures of all things that I am here to read."

No biggie you might think, unless you happen to be a Joyce purist. The Central Bank claimed its line was "an artistic representation of the author and text and not intended as a literal representation".

In the end the whole thing did generate a lot more publicity than you might expect for an otherwise unremarkable run of 10,000 coins celebrating a literary great.

James Joyce himself - who quite obviously wasn't much of a rule follower when it came to language - would probably have found it funny. It's hard to imagine him feeling the same way about the Brexit process.

It seems that for now, at least, nothing much will change at midnight tonight. There's a Brexit transition period before the real changes happen - aside from the fact that Britain would have to reapply if it decided it wanted, after all, to be part of the EU.

Nonetheless, farewell Britain; life won't be quite the same without you.

Irish Independent